As soon as we heard about the 60 Minutes and Jon Krakauer exposés of Montana author Greg Mortenson, we knew we were not going to enjoy this. And we were right; we are not enjoying it. Mortenson and his co-author David Oliver Relin won an Award from the Northwest Booksellers in 2007 for Three Cups of Tea, back when the subtitle was One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism . . . One School at a Time. In “Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero Lost His Way,” a lengthy article in the inaugural issue of a site called Byliner, Krakauer alleges that Mortenson fabricated much of the story he tells in Three Cups and that he misuses funds donated to his Central Asia Institute—including $75,000 that Krakauer donated to the organization.
Over the weekend, we asked for responses to the accusations from Northwest booksellers, including members of the committee that gave the Award in 2007 as well as some who currently serve on the awards committee.
We heard one consistent message from almost all of the booksellers: The important issue is that Mortenson’s non-profit is building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan—and that many girls are receiving an education in a region where it hasn’t always been an option. The booksellers credit Mortenson with making that happen, even if his financial and management skills are problematic, which he admits. Many booksellers pointed out that Mortenson is not exactly living “high on the hog,” and that he continues to spend time and effort in Afghanistan, and that his time in the United States is spent lining up support for more trips to Central Asia and for more schools to be built there. His goals seem to remain nobel.
Several booksellers asked us not to use their names, and others seemed reluctant to point fingers, to assume that anything had been “decided” because of the revelations. “I don’t think we can make a judgment at this early point,” says Leigh Ann Giles, the general book buyer at the Western Associated Students Bookstore in Bellingham. ” . . . I think we should remain open until more information unfolds.”
Four booksellers at Eagle Harbor Book Company on Bainbridge Island sat down Monday to talk about the issue. They (Paul Hanson, Mary Gleysteen, Jane Bowman and Victoria Irwin) wrote: “Initially, we were, of course, dismayed. That knee-jerk response of, ‘Oh no, we’ve all been duped’ kicks in and, with it, the feelings of alarm and even anger that we’ve been deceived . . . That was our primal response and the one that 60 Minutes, of course, wishes to provoke. However, that was short-lived. Reason prevails and we realize that whatever the level of fictionalization of Mortenson’s personal story, the cause is just, and the need is there. We admire and support Mortenson and his Central Asia Institute, who have done more for the causes of peace and education in Pakistan and Afghanistan than any other individuals or organizations of which we are aware.”
Claudia Wohlfeil, the satellite store manager at the University of Idaho Bookstore, Moscow, ID, echoed their sentiments. “This absolutely does not change my mind about the validity of the award we gave to Greg and David,” she wrote. “We were responding to the book as presented. At the core, it is still a book about one man doing something/anything to make the world a better place. I’d like to support that, not tear it down.”
Booksellers from the committee that awarded Mortenson and Relin in 2007 pointed out that they wanted to honor Mortenson for his work in Central Asia as much—or more—than they wanted to honor his writing.
At least one bookseller brought up the issue of editing. Susan Richmond, who owns Inklings in Yakima, WA, says that, though it’s the author’s responsibility to present the truth, it’s also the job of the book’s editors to verify the facts. “Surely the author has the main responsibility because he is asking for the trust of his reader,” she writes. “He must be meticulous about detail that can possibly upset the whole apple cart with an error, causing (sorry for another cliche) people to throw out the baby with the bathwater and dismiss his entire work as falsehood or at least suspect.”
And what’s the responsibility of the publisher in acknowledging that mistakes were made, if they were? Jamil Zaidi, the assistant manager at Elliott Bay Book Co in Seattle, WA, says that if elements of Mortenson’s story are indeed inaccurate, the publisher shouldn’t have to change anything about their marketing or promotion of the book. “Any time someone is reading a single person’s account of events, it should be understood that the author’s perspective and motives for presenting the account will certainly affect the ultimate result,” he writes. “Readers seeking something resembling the utmost truth should consult several sources to help elucidate the differences and highlight the similarities. Booksellers shouldn’t be expected to recommend books with caveats about truthfulness, but instead should enter into a dialogue with the interested reader about the issue and how to gain a more informed and holistic perspective.”
No responses to “Booksellers Respond to Three Cups Mess”
The only comment I would add is that the subtitle of the book was “One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism….One School at a Time” It was changed to “One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace….One School at a Time” for the trade paperback release.
Greg speaks about this frequently in his talks. The marketing people in NY told him that fighting terrorism would sell more books. The hardcover did “okay” in sales. Greg pushed to have the title changed for the trade paper release. It was after that change that the book hit the NY Times Best Sellers List. He and David Oliver Relin were in Moscow ID on April 3rd 2008 when they got the news that 3CT had hit #1. I have a picture of David on stage with a #1 foam finger alerting the sold out crowd to the news.
Thanks for making this point, Claudia (and for the correction).
Thanks for the calm response to this unfolding drama. There are people who really try to make the world a better place, they are our rightful heroes. Greg Mortenson and Nicholas Kristof are two examples of authors I greatly admire. We need such heroes.
My esteem for Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools really didn’t have much to do with Greg spending one week or one afternoon in the village of Korphe. It had nothing to do with him spending eight days as a “kidnap” victim or eight days in “protective custody.” And I don’t really care if he hops the occasional chartered jet. I do care that he has built schools that educate children in parts of the world where they would not otherwise have this opportunity. I do care that he promotes the education of young girls.The heart and soul of his two books has always been the schools and building mutually respectful relationships within other cultures. That was fascinating. And now it may all fall apart like a house of cards.
Greg has always admitted he was not a “detail” sort of guy. And he should have been more up front about condensing timeframes. But do these failings call for the tearing apart of something splendid, do they require dismantling his good works? This could have been addressed so much better. Sixty Minutes behaved like they were on a witch hunt. Why not show both sides? Why not show some Mortenson supporters? How about hearing from some of the graduates of the schools?
Krakauer’s attack, apparently brewing for a number of years, is being launched when his opponent is scheduled for heart surgery. I understand that he has misgivings, and he has a right to be heard, but he might have been better served to address his concerns in a more civil, productive manner. Wouldn’t it be better to make constructive criticism, recommend productive changes, engage in a dialogue, and keep the good work alive? Do we need to dismantle Greg Mortenson? After I finished reading some of the articles my reaction was to walk across our store, remove the Krakauer book from its face out position and put it spine out where it has stayed. I have this to say to Krakauer: What have you done to make the world a better place? At least Mortenson tried.
I appreciate the tone of Thom’s article. Greg needs to answer questions, maybe he needs to make changes, but for the time being let’s wait and give him the opportunity to respond once he is out of surgery. If he cooked the books there will be time enough to tear him apart, but maybe he really is what he seems, a guy who cares deeply about doing good.
Whatever one’s personal response to an individual work of what’s meant to be nonfiction, as a bookseller of long experience, I admit to a profound weariness at yet again having been sold uplift & ego labeled as fact. Stories too good to be true? Let me count the ways . . . The Education of Little Tree, A Rock and a Hard Place: One Boy’s Triumphant Story, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, Angel at the Fence: The True Story of a Love That Survived, and so on, and so on. More than one of these books were helped onto the bestsellers lists by Independent booksellers. Perhaps we owe our loyal customers more than our enthusiasm. Perhaps a little skepticism now and then might direct readers to tougher books on difficult subjects, by authors with established reputations, and without such simplistic, completely subjective and, as too often has turned out to be the case, invented, yet heartwarming “stories.” How about Ahmed Rashid on life under the Taliban, for example. True, no heroic white men in that one . . .
I have been scanning the Internet this morning waiting for, and looking for, people willing to stand up for Mortenson and point out the glaring obvious hypocrisy of Jon Krakauer’s own trail of misinformation:
Into Thin Air: he became a pariah in the climbing community over the countless errors, mistakes and downright libel of Anatoli Boukereev. If Boukereev had not been Russian, and had not died one year later, his friends were trying to convince him to sue Krakauer.
Into the Wild: again numerous factual errors regarding Chris McCandle’s horrible death in Alaska.
Under the Banner of Heaven: managed to upset people of the Morman faith by his depiction of them, filtered to suit his goal of criticizing everyone from his mother on up.
Three Cups of Deceit: PLEASE DO NOT PAY FOR THIS TRASHING OF AN ORDINARY GUY WHO TRIED TO DO SOMETHING EXTRAORDINARY!
Krakauer needs to take a good look in the mirror and at his own factual problems before he goes on what can only be called a witch hunt of this poor man.
Please go to the Central Asia Institute website for responses to the allegations made by 60 Minutes and Jon Krakauer in 15 minutes of misinformation, misleading half truths and a gross manipulation of facts.
And read this recent article: http://hubpages.com/hub/Greg-Mortenson-Bozemans-Local-Hero